Tebello Nyokong is a pioneer in nanotechnology, researching how we might be able to detect cancer in new ways. She holds a Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Research chair at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where she is also a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. She is the winner of countless awards and remains one of the most influential scientists in Africa. In 2011 she published a widely-read open letter to her 18 year old self, a moving examination of her journey from poverty in Lesotho to international success.
Sasha Sagan: As a young girl, you worked as a shepherd. You could only go to school every other day. Describe the moment you first knew science would be, or even could be, your path.
Professor Tebello Nyokong: Maybe being a shepherd prepared me to be a scientist. In the field, you learn to understand the vegetation, the birds, etc. I think that is part of science. Anyway, I chose the arts stream in high school due to peer influence and a general belief that science was hard. The common stereotype then was that science is not for girls; its demands would conflict with domestic and wifely responsibilities.
I moved from the arts stream to science after three years of high school. I did my science and math over two years in high school while others took five years. I even enrolled for advanced math. Doing math and science also opens [up] more opportunities. With a math and science background, one can go into any profession, but without them, the opportunities are limited.
South Africa has undergone dramatic social and political change in your lifetime. How has the South African relationship with science changed in that time?
I strongly believe that South Africa tries very hard to balance—we only see one side in the media—the needs of the poor, such as housing, while at the same time maintaining first world business. I run a multi-million dollar scientific equipment facility funded by the South African government to ensure that we are world class in terms of science.
In 2011 you wrote an incredibly moving open letter to your 18-year-old self. In it, you talk about the ways in which your peers discouraged you at school. Have the stigmas against women being highly educated or pursuing science changed?
My feeling is that in the biological sciences, women are making their mark all over the continent. The problem is still with the physical sciences, including chemistry, physics, and math. My instinct is that this could be related to the misconception that these subjects are hard, starting right from high school. And hence ‘not for girls!!’.
How much institutional or overt sexism do you still encounter in your professional life?
This is hard to respond to since I have survived to an extent that I do not think people see me as a woman anymore. I am just a strange scientist.
Were there women scientists who inspired you early in your career? Who were they?
My high school science teachers were female. When I finally joined the sciences, Mrs Malie, one of my science teachers, had just arrived from training. I admired her tremendously. She made the subjects she taught so simple and so enjoyable. She had a constant smile, and was extremely friendly to all.
What drew you to medical chemistry, and nanotechnology in particular? What separates them from other fields for you? What excites you about them?
I used to think I wanted to be a doctor but after completing my degree I got a scholarship to go to Canada to study chemistry further as part of the Lesotho government policy to develop local people as lecturers. By that time, I loved chemistry fully and I began to see that doctors cure patients but chemists develop the medicines. So being a doctor was no longer so important to me. I loved my career path as a chemist to develop the drugs! Nanotechnology is just a drug delivery tool that I use.
What does your average workday consist of?
I used to walk five kilometres a day (now, barely) to clear my mind. My hobbies change regularly, but I do garden a lot and I used to hike. On a daily basis, I read my students’ reports, theses, and papers at home before I come to work. It is more peaceful at home. At work, there are too many distractions so I only come after 11am. I love my job!
"One thing that is worrying me is that people treat science as something removed from them. They seem not to realise that science is in the air we breathe, food we eat, etc. We are science!" - Professor Tebello Nyokong
How does strict adherence to the scientific method in your profession inform other aspects of your life, for example, your views on spirituality and politics?
I like getting to the point, doing only things that have a clear path for positive results. I really do not like wasting energy by talking for the sake of talking. So this is what influences my relationship with politics.
What do you wish the average layperson understood about your field or about science in general?
One thing that is worrying me is that people treat science as something removed from them. They seem not to realise that science is in the air we breathe, food we eat, etc. We are science!
How would South Africa, or the world in general, be different if people were more scientifically literate?
Scientifically literate women in particular create a scientifically literate community, since they bring up children and can encourage scientific thinking quite early in life. Development in any country needs a strong science and technology base.
You are outspoken about education. How would you change the way science is taught in schools?
In South Africa, there are very few trained teachers in science. And there is huge pressure to have a 100% pass rate in schools. So students may be discouraged from taking subjects that are perceived to be hard, such as math and science, to avoid possibility of failure and falling below that 100% rate. I would not be where I am if pass rates were important in my days. No teacher would have allowed me to start science with two years of high school left.
Which elements of your field do you most enjoy teaching at Rhodes University?
I used to teach chemistry from first year to honours. What I enjoy the most are my first-year lectures. And I insist on being the first one to start them at the beginning of the year, when they are still eager and before they get influenced by the older students. I want to [instil] my passion for learning into them. I believe in exciting students right from first year about chemistry, and I believe in instilling the values of hard work, discipline, and passion in whatever they do.
What single scientific fact or broad concept still astonishes you?
Global warming. I will not say why.
What’s been the most thrilling advancement in your field of the last decade?
The huge developments in nanotechnology as they are widely used in almost every sphere of life.
How do you envision the future of medicine?
There is an innovation chasm with an insufficient amount of research directly influencing the real economy. Going from research to real products is a problem, even where research is advanced. For example, the development of drugs needs pharmaceutical industries that are committed to developing R&D. This would help the development of new drugs.